One small step for grapes: the history of wine in space
According to Nasa, wine could potentially be grown on the International Space Station. Elliot Gardner finds out more about the claim, and looks into wine’s storied history amongst the stars.
Grape vines are known to be hardy crops, with wine varieties being grown anywhere from the cold bracing countryside of Canada, to the sands of the Gobi desert. But news this week from an interview with a Nasa scientist has people wondering whether a sand dune really is really the most exotic place to produce grape varietals for wine-making.
In an interview with Gizmodo, Gioia Massa, a scientist from the team in charge of Nasa’s Vegetable Production System, nicknamed ‘Veggie’, discussed the possibility of astronauts growing grape crops and crafting their own wine on the International Space Station (ISS).
“We have been working with some dwarf fruit trees that the USDA developed, and I have heard that they also have some dwarf grape vines, so if the plants were small enough or could be trained around, for example, lights, it would certainly be possible to grow them,” she was quoted as saying, going on to explain that while it would surely be a complicated affair, it’s a measure of the technology and trying to find a work-arounds that wouldn’t hamper the growth of the crop. Any vine would have to be extremely cramped, due to limited space availability on the ISS, meaning it would be tricky to ensure the plant received enough light to grow properly.
Speaking via email in a follow-up, Nasa communication officer Amanda Griffin from the Kennedy Space Center clarified that “while [Massa] says it may be possible to grow grapes in space, this is not something NASA is currently pursuing.” But that hasn’t stopped Massa mulling over whether or not the winemaking process is feasible.
“I would suspect a microbial bioreactor could be developed which would allow the fermentation and other processes to occur in microgravity… Fermentation is an anaerobic process so the fact that fluids and gasses don’t mix well in space might not be a problem for that process. You might have to inoculate with the right types of microorganisms but I think it would definitely be possible.”
Sherry amongst the stars
This isn’t the first time that wine has been involved with spacefaring. Nasa astronauts don’t actually drink any alcohol when in space despite original plans during the early missions of the 1970s to provide sherry on-board Skylab, the US’s first space station, with sherry being chosen due to its strong resistance in terms of taste to temperature variations.
Rather than being for any practical reason, the booze never made it beyond Earth because of apathy from astronauts after the smell of the sherry combined with the residual odour of vomit on Nasa’s low-gravity aeroplane made many feel ill during test flights, as well as anger at the whole idea from more conservative members of the public.
The prospect of alcohol being sent up with astronauts as part of their food package was mentioned by Skylab 4 commander Gerry Carr during a public lecture. According to reports at the time by the Milwaukee Journal, several individuals were unhappy with the idea, as astronauts were seen to represent a form of ‘purity’, as the best of the best of American citizens, so some members of the public claimed that the inclusion of alcohol would ‘taint’ the achievement.
And so, due to a combination of factors, the space agency decided to officially drop the use of alcohol on space flights, and the policy still stands today, with the only alcohol ever sent up being used for scientific experiments.
The rules do have their haziness though. Famously Buzz Aldrin is attributed to drinking the first off-world alcoholic beverage. Aldrin took to space some wine and communion wafers provided by his church, Webster Presbyterian, of which he was an elder. The event took place during a moment of radio silence and as such was never broadcast as so to not offend atheist groups at the time.
Aldrin recounted the experience in his 2009 book, Magnificent Desolation: “I poured a thimbleful of wine from a sealed plastic container into a small chalice, and waited for the wine to settle down as it swirled in the one-sixth Earth gravity of the moon. My comments to the world were inclusive: “I would like to request a few moments of silence…and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.”
China’s spacefaring grapes
But wine’s adventures in space didn’t stop in the 70s. In 2016 China was reported by Decanter China to have sent grapevines into space in the hope of developing strains that could survive the harshest climates the country has to offer.
Cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir vines were all sent up with China’s Tiangong-2 (or Heavenly Palace 2) in the hope that the growing wine grapes in space will trigger a mutation in the crop from the increased exposure to radiation inherent with life outside the Earth’s atmosphere. According to Decanter China, the Chinese scientists are specifically hoping to develop resistance to cold temperatures, drought and viruses, all of which are problems faced by growers in the Ningxia region of China, where the grapes were sourced.
Since the rapid growth of China’s economy, the Asian country has since become the world’s largest consumer of red wine, with more vineyards than any country other than France. If China can somehow unlock the secret the great-tasting grapes that are also hardy enough to both grow on its cold mountaintops as well as its desolate desert sands, it could bolster China’s winemaking industry, securing its status as a wine powerhouse.